The awful force of the press may yet be felt

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On the day in 1976 when the new Prime Minister, James Callaghan, finished off Roy Jenkins's long career in Labour politics - telling him that he was not going to make him Foreign Secretary, and advising him to take the job that was on offer in Brussels - Jenkins and I had dinner together. He was then Home Secretary, for the second time round.

He arranged to pick me up at a friend's house and to drive to the Soho restaurant in his official car. Already in it were two solid citizens, in addition to him. How we all managed to fit in I do not know, but we did. Seated at our table, the two of us, I cast around the restaurant for these bodyguards. They were nowhere to be seen. Jenkins told me not to make a fuss - that they were sure to be in the area somewhere.

"But what will they do for their dinner?" I persisted.

"They'll be perfectly all right," Jenkins said, clearly irritated that the whereabouts of his bodyguards should take precedence over his own preoccupations. "They live off the land."

However, he never complained to me about their omnipresence. His successor at the Home Office, Merlyn Rees, found the security distinctly irksome. It may be that he was subject to more of it because of his previous stint at the Northern Ireland Office. Even so, the Home Secretary has always been accorded more protection than any other minister, including the Prime Minister, though here things may have changed over the last few years. His special position originated in some outrage in Victorian times. It has been maintained ever since.

In these circumstances, it is surprising that some newspapers have been asking whether the security services knew of Mr David Blunkett's liaison with Mrs Kimberly Quinn and, if so, whether they told Mr Tony Blair about it. Perhaps the answer to the second part of the question is not altogether obvious. The security services, the police or whoever may have been availing themselves of the doctrine now popular in ministerial circles: that of the sanctity of private life. But they must have known what was going on. Mr Blunkett, owing to his position, is (or ought to be) under surveillance for most of his working life and no doubt when he is in bed as well, in a general sort of way.

Indeed, in view of the lack of privacy in his life - brought about partly by his office, partly by his blindness - I am full of admiration that he felt able to embark on an affair at all. The corollary is that it could not have been continued without the toleration and, to some extent, the active co-operation of his civil servants. As Roy Jenkins gave me a lift in his car, with attendant bodyguards, so Mr Blunkett must have given Mrs Quinn several lifts in his, with or without the presence of muscular lads in bulging suits.

The officials may well have taken the view that the affair was good for their master, that in his care-strewn life he deserved what The Sun calls a bit of fun. That would have been at the beginning, or when the relationship was proceeding more or less equably, as these things go. Not so today. As Carlyle put it in The French Revolution: "Mad movements both, restrainable by no known rule; strongest passions of human nature driving them on: love, hatred, vengeful sorrow... - and pale panic over all!"

What is clear is that Home Secretaries are different from judges, in whom the principle of the sanctity of private life is not meant to apply so strongly. In guidance drawn up by a committee of judges, which was published last week, the Bench are advised to avoid any situation that might "expose them to charges of hypocrisy by reason of things done in their private life". Moreover, "behaviour that might be regarded as merely unfortunate if engaged in by someone who is not a judge might be seen as unacceptable if engaged in by a person who is a judge and ... has to pass judgment on the behaviour of others".

The rules for politicians are more flexible. Indeed, so flexible are they that they scarcely deserve to be called rules at all. The reasons for ministerial resignations, or for failures to resign, quickly fade from the public memory. Thus Mr David Mellor resigned well before Mr John Major inaugurated his "Back to Basics" campaign. He did not resign because he had enjoyed an affair with an actress about which Mr Max Clifford told tall tales to The Sun but, rather, because he had accepted a free air ticket from another lady, and the chairman of the 1922 Committee demanded his head.

Back to Basics had nothing to do with sex but was concerned with reading, writing and arithmetic. I know, because I was there, and read the speech several times later on. But in a press briefing Mr Tim Collins, in an early exhibition of spin-doctoring, confirmed a journalist's supposition that the then Prime Minister had indeed had the wholesale playing of doctors-and-nurses in his mind. Mr Tim Yeo made a Tory councillor pregnant and was given the heave-ho. Having paid his debt to society, he now adorns Mr Michael Howard's front bench.

Mr Steven Norris had more mistresses than I have usable pairs of shoes but stood firm, saying that (like Mr Blunkett) he was a divorced man who could conduct his life in any way he chose; as he duly proceeded to do. Lord Parkinson stayed with his wife (in accordance with Margaret Thatcher's advice), refused to marry his mistress and had to resign. Lord Lawson, however, separated from his wife, took up with a researcher at the House of Commons library, moved into her small house in Wandsworth, had a baby, got married, had another baby and prospered greatly until he resigned from the Thatcher government for quite other reasons. Nigel's story illustrates that there are occasions when no publicity is good publicity. For some reason, the papers chose not to write about his troubles, if troubles they were.

Mr Blunkett has not exactly been ignored. But then again, his story took a long time, in newspaper terms, to work up a proper head of steam. Even today, the whistle is muted, partly because Mr Rupert Murdoch's papers have treated him with some sympathy. No minister, however, can resist the combined wrath of The Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror.

It is not an edifying spectacle. But what has edification to do with it? Is a forest fire edifying? Or an earthquake, a great flood or the eruption of a volcano? They serve to remind us of the awful force of nature. It is profitless for the papers to proclaim, as they sometimes do, that the tragedy must never be allowed to happen again, for happen it assuredly will. The awful force of the British press has yet to be deployed. It is waiting, as we all are, for Sir Alan Budd.

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